"For the rest of you who are in mixed marriages—Christian married to non-Christian—we have no explicit command from the Master. So this is what you must do. If you are a man with a wife who is not a believer but who still wants to live with you, hold on to her. If you are a woman with a husband who is not a believer but he wants to live with you, hold on to him. The unbelieving husband shares to an extent in the holiness of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is likewise touched by the holiness of her husband." - 1 Corinthians 7:12-14
There's a bumper sticker on a car in my neighborhood that never fails to chap my hide. "God is just pretend," it gloats.
It angers me because the driver of that car is not just trying to state their (non-) belief. They are trying to undermine the belief of others.
But not all atheists are like that, and we shouldn't tar them with the same brush.
There's an atheist who comes to our church regularly. He's married to a committed Christian. I often see him in the kitchen, doing dishes at coffee hour. When his wife joined the church, she said at one of our new members' classes, "Steven just can't believe that you accept him for who he is—even though he doesn't believe in God. You even let him do the dishes."
Uh, yeah. We're really liberal that way. We will let absolutely anybody do our dishes.
Some positive psychology research suggests that churchgoing makes people happier, and more generous. Even the atheists report higher satisfaction with life as a result of regular engagement with a community of faith. (Tell that to your 14-year-old when he sulkily insists he shouldn't have to go to church anymore because he doesn't believe in God.)
I don't have stats on it, but anecdotal evidence says the reverse is true too: the atheists and agnostics in our churches make our life together better. When they ask challenging questions, they make believers examine their faith and throw out the fluff. And when the people who say they "don't believe all that much" pray out loud: well, I feel the power of those prayers more than the pretty words of those to whom prayer is as natural as breathing.
And then: there are those dirty dishes. They won't do themselves.
Sometimes, our scriptures seem a little incomplete, like this bit from Corinthians. Because holiness flows, not just from the believer to the unbeliever, but in both directions.
O Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelievers—and not by making them just like me. Amen.
Molly Baskette is senior minister of First Church Somerville UCC in Somerville, MA, and the author of the forthcoming book Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too.